In These Times: “Stories of Survival”

6 08 2007

original article located here

Features > June 29, 2007

Stories of Survival

NO! explores rape within the African-American community and fights society’s instinct to focus on the racism outside while turning a deaf ear to gender violence within

By Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell

The documentary NO! chips away at the myths and silence surrounding sexual assault it he black community

Filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons didn’t miss a beat when a white, female student told her at a 2003 Boston College screening of her documentary NO!, “Until I saw your film, I didn’t know that black women could be raped.” Simmons, a Philadelphia resident, calmly asked the young woman why she believed such a thing. The student replied that she didn’t think black women, simultaneously praised and pilloried for their strength, would stand for such a violation—as if sexual-violence victims are able to negotiate with attackers or deter them with a hefty serving of attitude.That wasn’t the case with Simmons, now 38, who was sexually assaulted in 1989, when she was a 19-year-old Temple University sophomore on a foreign exchange program to Mexico. A clandestine date—outside the dorm and the curfew hours—turned into a rape that left her pregnant and so devastated that she dropped out of college. Nor was that the case with the women whose stories Simmons has included in NO!, which explores rape within the African-American community.

Among them is a woman who was raped by her mentor, the university’s highest ranking black administrator; another whose fraternity boyfriend wouldn’t take no for an answer; and yet another who struggles with bulimia decades after her first boyfriend beat and raped her after she refused to have sex outside.

For Simmons, NO! has been a labor of love to make the film she wanted, regardless of how long it took. Simmons began filming interviews in 1994 with co-producer Tamara Xavier, but the documentary wasn’t released until 2006, largely because of the struggle to find $300,000 in necessary funding.

With NO!, Simmons hopes to chip away at the myths and disquieting silence surrounding sexual assault in the black community, which has traditionally been so attuned to racism outside that it has largely turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to gender violence within.

“There’s this notion,” says Simmons, “that when black women come forward [and say they’ve been raped], that we’re a traitor to the race. I wanted to show these women, their faces, their names. I understand privacy and shame, but shame should be on the perpetrators.”

Simmons followed the case of Desiree Washington, the beauty queen who accused boxer Mike Tyson of raping her in 1991 in his hotel room. (Tyson served three years in prison.) Then came the campaign to “save” Tyson and discredit Washington—complete with T-shirts proclaiming his innocence. In NO!, Simmons includes footage of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan asking what Washington expected when she went to Tyson’s room as other faith leaders cackle in agreement.

Simmons wondered why those leaders and others never acknowledged that rape isn’t typically a crime committed by a stranger and that, for most black women, the perpetrator is an acquaintance who looks like them. The lack of critical reaction from the black community in the wake of the Washington case, combined with a 1994 trip to South Africa, where she met activists working on issues of sexual assault, galvanized her to make NO!. It is estimated that as many as half of all South African women will be raped in their lifetimes.

American women are also vulnerable to sexual assault. According to a study by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, one in every six U.S. women will be subjected to sexual assault or an attempted assault during her lifetime. The organization’s “Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey” estimates that 18.8 percent of black women will survive a rape or attempted rape—making them only slightly more likely than the general population (17.6 percent) and white women (17.7 percent) to experience such a crime, but much less likely to be raped than Native Americans.

Numbers alone don’t express the full extent of rape or sexual assault in the black community—a topic that has probably been discussed more extensively in novels such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple than in real life. Black women must deal with competing interests—protecting one’s self versus protecting the image of black men in a society where black men are the usual suspects of sexual crimes, facing the distrust of the police versus the need for personal security—that reduce the chance they will report rape.

With the help of anthropologist and former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole, historian Beverly Guy-Sheftall and former Black Panther Elaine Brown, NO! examines the historical forces that foster sexual violence—and suppress dialogue about it—in black communities. In a country built on slavery, which was predicated on control of black labor and reproduction, black women have been regarded as perpetually sexually available or “unrapeable.” They have never fit easily into the “good girl” mold.

“I realized that I couldn’t talk about sexual assault in the African-American community without talking about slavery,” says Simmons. “If somebody owns you, how do you have the right to consent?”

NO! is generating discussion within the black community. In 2003, writer Kevin Powell (who is black) showed an unfinished cut to a crowd of hundreds—including many African-American men—on a wintry Friday night in Harlem. Men are a vital part of the solution, says Nia Wilson, the associate director of Spirit House, an arts and cultural nonprofit in Durham, N.C. “This is not about going after black men,” she says. “This is about uncovering something we need to address, and we need to address it together. Men are the only ones who can stop rape, no matter what we say, no matter how much light we shine on it.”

Wilson, who is black and a sexual-violence survivor, is also a member of UBUNTU, a coalition that combats racism and violence. Simmons allowed UBUNTU to use NO! to foster dialogue around North Carolina. Wilson recalls a screening for a white audience that was disengaged from the topic. All of the reactions Wilson had learned to expect—tears, outrage, personal testimonies—didn’t happen. The audience members acknowledged the violence, but their comments and lack of emotion told her that they couldn’t relate to this type of violence.

Wilson told the audience, “I can watch a Lifetime movie with a cast full of white people and cry because I’m conditioned to relate to you. But you are not conditioned to relate to me. You, especially this group who thinks you’re so politically correct, you cannot watch a movie with people with brown skin and see yourself.”

Bryan Proffitt, a 28-year-old white schoolteacher and UBUNTU member, says that talking about rape and race requires starting from a framework that acknowledges a history of interracial violence, white supremacy, male domination and myths that need debunking. “There’s always a good bit of anxiety about how white folks are going to see this film. ‘Oh, look, black guys are rapists. We knew that.’ We’ve always tried to be careful of framing this film beforehand because we recognize that white people come in with that particular narrative and we want to challenge that before they see it.”

Before each screening, the UBUNTU facilitator reads a statement that lists 27 reasons the film is being shown, including: “Because the stories of survivors of sexual assault are powerful and sacred.” “Because there are survivors here.” “Because this film holds us all accountable for the world that we comply with and perpetuate.”

This April, NO! was selected as a featured resource by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Everywhere I’ve shown the film,” says Simmons, “someone comes up and discloses she’s a survivor. I could be the only black woman in the room—me and the women on the film—in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, women stand up and say, ‘This is my story.’”

For more information on NO!, visit www.notherapedocumentary.org.





J: AMC Follow-up – thoughts on grassroots publishing as a response to sexual violence

26 06 2007

At the AMC this weekend, Lex and I ran a workshop called Wrong is Not My Name: Poetic Healing as a Response to Sexual Violence where we shared our experience creating our interactive anthology Wrong is Not My Name: A Tribute to Survival Via June Jordan. Here’s a description:

This hands-on workshop will highlight the theory and practice of grassroots publishing as a response to Sexual Violence. Participants will learn about how this form of media fits into the work of UBUNTU, a women of color/survivor-led coalition committed to replacing gendered violence with sustaining transformative love. Based in Durham, NC. UBUNTU is practicing a model of community creation centered around healing, expression, sustainability, internal education and awareness raising. Participants will experience the UBUNTU model of community creation, through the production of a group publication during this workshop.

In the course of preparing to lead the workshop, we had some really interesting conversations about grassroots publishing in the context of our work – I wanted to share some thoughts from these as well as some things I learned about zines and resources for exploring further.

Grassroots publishing (by which I mean to include a wide range of mediums that allow writers to share their words without going through commercial publishing institutions – independent presses, zines, community newsletters, booklets, brochures, blogs, etc.), can be a powerful resource in the context of personal and community healing because:

The process of creating and writing – ‘coming to voice’ on paper – can be an accessible and concrete way for survivors to engage in healing. For some of us, the processes of emotional and physical healing can feel intimidating (big, mysterious, painful) and we often cope by avoiding and shutting down emotionally. Survivors of sexual violence are sometimes silenced by feelings of isolation, shame, self-doubt, and fear. Talking through experiences of violence or their aftermath with another person or people that we trust is a crucial element of the healing process (click here for information on supporting a survivor of sexual assault). Writing is no substitute, but healing is an ongoing process and putting things down on paper can be useful at any point along the way. Writing – journaling, poetry, freeform, essays, or really in any form – allows us to acknowledge and express feelings and thoughts at whatever pace and time feels right. When it is just us and the paper (or the screen) we don’t have to worry about being judged, or blamed, or disbelieved. We can share our truths, or not share them – either way, in writing we learn to hear and honor our own voices.

    …and when we speak we are afraid
    our words will not be heard
    nor welcomed
    but when we are silent
    we are still afraid

    So it is better to speak
    remembering
    we were never meant to survive

    Audre Lorde
    ‘Litany for Survival’

    When we publish our writings (on blogs, in zines, or elsewhere) it is a way of meeting the world as a part of healing – this is important because we honor eachother’s humanity by speaking our truths, and because as Lex reminded us, “silence is already a form of death.” Speaking truth is also a powerful and transformative act of resistance within the context of a rape culture that demands our silence. Research tells us that there are an estimated 21 million survivors in this country today, and that every 2 1/2 minutes someone is sexually assaulted – yet, too often people speak about rape as though it were a rare occurrence and isolated to back alleyways and “other” people. When survivors speak up, we challenge popular misconceptions about rape. We also make it easier for other survivors to do the same.

      Being part of a writing community within UBUNTU has allowed us to connect to other survivors, to support and celebrate eachother. And in sharing our stories and experiences with eachother we are able to bring our analysis of sexual violence to a systemic (rather than individual) level. When we observe the commonalities between these experiences, we can clearly see the structural roots of sexual violence and understand rape culture as situated within the context of interlocking racial, gendered, sexual, and class-based oppressions. Taken as a body of work, the writings of survivors (in UBUNTU and elsewhere) speak to and document the prevalence of sexual violence and to the physical and emotional costs of rape culture for real people – both survivors and our loved ones. In this way, these writings are also a political resource or tool that can be useful in educating and calling for change. Through the use of grassroots publishing methods we are able to share our writings quickly, easily, and widely with little or no overhead costs – making the process accessible to all who know ‘it is better to speak’.

        What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
        The world would split open.

        Muriel Rukeseyer
        ‘Kathe Kollwitz’





        Check us out at the Social Forum! (Updated!)

        19 06 2007

        NEED

        time: Friday at 20:30 PM (8:30)
        location: Horizon Theater room at the Little Five Points Community Center

        This workshop will invite participants to interact with a performance
        of Audre Lorde’s Need: A Chorale for Black Women’s Voices as a forum
        to discuss the war on women and how we can overcome the silence that
        perpetuates violence in oppressed communities.

        We want the participants to leave with strategies for breaking silence
        in their communities. We want them to leave enabled to use art as tool
        to engage with issues and problems in their own communities,
        relationships and personal lives. We also intend for participants to
        take away their own copy of Need and the sample curricula that we have
        developed and the art that they will have created in conversation with
        the piece.

        The presenters will perform the piece NEED and lead a discussion in
        which participants discuss their responses to the piece. Then the
        participants will break into groups to explore sample workshops that
        they may be able to use in their communities.

        Our workshop/performance will be conducted in English. We do not have
        a sign language interpreter or a vocal translator who has signed on so
        far. We are very open to being paired with people who could provide
        these services.
        (This workshop is co-facilitated by SpiritHouse and UBUNTU. And is listed in the USSF schedule under SpiritHouse)

        Feminism: Gender, Race and Class

        time: Saturday at 18:00 PM (6:00)
        location: Atlanta Ballroom B room at the Renaissance Atlanta Hotel Downtown

        The Feminism: Gender, Race and Class workshop will initiate a
        strategic process for rebuilding/building the women’s liberation
        movement. Solidarity, a national co-sponsor of the USSF, is lead
        organization. This workshop acknowledges attacks on the gains of the
        women’s liberation movement and the impact of gender, race and class
        contradictions inside the women’s liberation movement. This workshop
        will educate on the intersection of the women’s movement with the
        civil rights, labor and peace movements of the past 40 years.
        Historical analyses will illustrate how gender, race and class have
        been factors in the struggle for unity in the women’s liberation
        movement.

        This workshop is co-sponsored by Solidarity; Centro Obrero (Michigan); Circle Connections; NOW; PEP (New York); SisterSong; Ubuntu; Project South; Black Radical Congress; SpiritHouse; Highlander Center and is listed in the USSF schedule under Solidarity)

        Traveled Bodies – Policing Blackness and the Technology of State Violence

        (A HERstorical Artistic Reflection)

        location: Task Force for the Homeless, 477 Peachtree St

        Traveled Bodies – Policing Blackness and the Technology of State Violence (A HERstorical Artistic Relfection) is a multimedia meditative collaboration on the pervasive tapestry of police brutality as it progresses from slavery to now. The artists pay homage to the evolutionary women arts movement, our resilient bodies who continue to create under this haunting violence, and our sisters and brothers locked up in modern day plantations here and abroad.

        ~~~

        Also look for Southerners On New Ground in ATL – their Social Forum schedule can be found at: southernersonnewground.org





        A Call to Action: Justice for Erika Keels

        31 05 2007

        letter from a friend in Philly:

        dear friends,

        I am writing to ask you to support work that I’m doing with the Justice 4 Erika campaign here in Philly. Erika Keels was murdered on March 22, 2007 on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. Witnesses saw an assailant eject Erika, a 20-year-old black transwoman, from his car, and intentionally run her over four times, killing her and leaving the scene. A medical examiner’s report supports these eyewitness accounts. But police ruled Erika’s death an accident and have refused to conduct an investigation. The driver, Roland Button, was later apprehended, but he has yet to face criminal charges–including “hit and run” charges. When Ms. Keels’ friends, who are themselves trans, questioned police officials about the classification of her death as an accident, they were asked to disclose their “birth” names and told they were “trying to make something out of nothing.”

        Our immediate goal is for the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and the Accident Investigation Division to reopen Erika’s case and conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding her death. We want to send a powerful message to the Philadelphia Police Department that we stand together to demand justice for trans and gender non-conforming people, police accountability, and respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every person. Things you can do to help:

        1. Sign our community support letter (read below and sign at http://www.petitiononline.com/ErikaK/petition.html ).

        2. Get organizational sign-ons from groups you’re in or connected to. (Organizations should email Justice4Erika@gmail.com to confirm their support.)

        3. Come to the Justice 4 Erika demonstration on Thursday, June 14 at noon @ 6th and Arch in Center City Philadelphia.

        4. Sign up for weekly email updates on the campaign (email Justice4Erika@gmail.com)

        5. SPREAD THE WORD. Write letters to local newspapers. Ask everyone you know to sign on to the letter.

        Thanks. I can answer any questions about the campaign.
        Contact me if you want to get involved with the organizing…

        in love & struggle,

        COMMUNITY SUPPORT LETTER
        http://www.petitiononline.com/ErikaK/petition.html

        To: Captain Michael Murphy
        Accident Investigation Division
        Philadelphia Police Department

        Cc: Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson
        District Attorney Lynne Abraham
        Michael Hinson, mayor¹s liaison to LGBT communities
        Mayor John Street

        June 2007

        Dear Captain Murphy,

        Young transwomen of color living and working in Philadelphia know they are
        at risk of physical attack at any moment, and many experience layers of hate
        and harassment on a daily basis. Erika Keels was one of our own.

        On March 22, witnesses saw an assailant intentionally run over Ms. Keels
        four times after ejecting her from his car at Broad and Thompson streets in
        North Philadelphia, killing her and leaving the scene. A medical examiner¹s
        report supports these eyewitness accounts. But police have ruled the death
        of this 20-year-old African American transwoman an accident and have refused
        to conduct an investigation. The driver, Roland Button, was later
        apprehended, but he has yet to face criminal charges‹even ³hit and run.²
        When Ms. Keels¹ friends, who are themselves trans, questioned police
        officials about the classification of her death as an accident, they were
        asked to disclose their ³birth² names and told they were ³trying to make
        something out of nothing.²

        We, the undersigned, refuse to be told that the murder of Ms. Keels‹and the
        subsequent police denial of the brutal, hateful assault on her‹are
        ³nothing.² The Philadelphia police have failed to protect her basic human
        rights and dignity. The schools and businesses of Philadelphia never gave
        her a chance to choose a career‹they failed her, and she was forced to earn
        her survival on the streets. The social services of this city failed to
        shelter her in a safe place to explore her own potential as a young person
        with imaginative goals and opportunities to thrive.

        We, as a community, will not fail her. We are individuals and organizations
        representing Black, Latina/o and Asian people; trans and gender
        non-conforming people; lesbians, gays and bisexuals; youth; immigrants;
        educators; students; social service providers; activists; religious
        communities; professionals; neighborhoods; and supporters around the world.

        We demand a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding Ms.
        Keels¹ death. Her case must be re-opened. Now and in the future, the police
        must follow their mandate to protect and serve all Philadelphians, including
        those targeted for hate because of their gender expression and identity. All
        levels of city government and administration must ensure that policy meant
        to protect human rights of people in this city is followed in letter and
        spirit.

        Sincerely,
        ______________





        A Call to Action: Justice for Erika Keels

        31 05 2007

        letter from a friend in Philly:

        dear friends,

        I am writing to ask you to support work that I’m doing with the Justice 4 Erika campaign here in Philly.  Erika Keels was murdered on March 22, 2007 on North Broad Street in Philadelphia.  Witnesses saw an assailant eject Erika, a 20-year-old black transwoman, from his car, and intentionally run her over four times, killing her and leaving the scene.  A medical examiner’s report supports these eyewitness accounts.  But police ruled Erika’s death an accident and have refused to conduct an investigation. The driver, Roland Button, was later apprehended, but he has yet to face criminal charges–including “hit and run” charges. When Ms. Keels’ friends, who are themselves trans, questioned police officials about the classification of her death as an accident, they were asked to disclose their “birth” names and told they were “trying to make something out of nothing.”

        Our immediate goal is for the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and the Accident Investigation Division to reopen Erika’s case and conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding her death.  We  want to send a powerful message to the Philadelphia Police Department that we stand together to demand justice for trans and gender non-conforming people, police accountability, and respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every person.  Things you can do to help:

        1. Sign our community support letter (read below and sign at http://www.petitiononline.com/ErikaK/petition.html ).

        2. Get organizational sign-ons from groups you’re in or connected to. (Organizations should email Justice4Erika@gmail.com to confirm their support.)

        3. Come to the Justice 4 Erika demonstration on Thursday, June 14 at noon @ 6th and Arch in Center City Philadelphia.

        4. Sign up for weekly email updates on the campaign (email Justice4Erika@gmail.com)

        5. SPREAD THE WORD.  Write letters to local newspapers. Ask everyone you know to sign on to the letter.

        Thanks.  I can answer any questions about the campaign.
        Contact me if you want to get involved with the organizing…

        in love & struggle,

        COMMUNITY SUPPORT LETTER
        http://www.petitiononline.com/ErikaK/petition.html

        To:  Captain Michael Murphy
        Accident Investigation Division
        Philadelphia Police Department

        Cc: Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson
        District Attorney Lynne Abraham
        Michael Hinson, mayor¹s liaison to LGBT communities
        Mayor John Street

        June 2007

        Dear Captain Murphy,

        Young transwomen of color living and working in Philadelphia know they are
        at risk of physical attack at any moment, and many experience layers of hate
        and harassment on a daily basis. Erika Keels was one of our own.

        On March 22, witnesses saw an assailant intentionally run over Ms. Keels
        four times after ejecting her from his car at Broad and Thompson streets in
        North Philadelphia, killing her and leaving the scene. A medical examiner¹s
        report supports these eyewitness accounts. But police have ruled the death
        of this 20-year-old African American transwoman an accident and have refused
        to conduct an investigation. The driver, Roland Button, was later
        apprehended, but he has yet to face criminal charges‹even ³hit and run.²
        When Ms. Keels¹ friends, who are themselves trans, questioned police
        officials about the classification of her death as an accident, they were
        asked to disclose their ³birth² names and told they were ³trying to make
        something out of nothing.²

        We, the undersigned, refuse to be told that the murder of Ms. Keels‹and the
        subsequent police denial of the brutal, hateful assault on her‹are
        ³nothing.² The Philadelphia police have failed to protect her basic human
        rights and dignity. The schools and businesses of Philadelphia never gave
        her a chance to choose a career‹they failed her, and she was forced to earn
        her survival on the streets. The social services of this city failed to
        shelter her in a safe place to explore her own potential as a young person
        with imaginative goals and opportunities to thrive.

        We, as a community, will not fail her. We are individuals and organizations
        representing Black, Latina/o and Asian people; trans and gender
        non-conforming people; lesbians, gays and bisexuals; youth; immigrants;
        educators; students; social service providers; activists; religious
        communities; professionals; neighborhoods; and supporters around the world.

        We demand a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding Ms.
        Keels¹ death. Her case must be re-opened. Now and in the future, the police
        must follow their mandate to protect and serve all Philadelphians, including
        those targeted for hate because of their gender expression and identity. All
        levels of city government and administration must ensure that policy meant
        to protect human rights of people in this city is followed in letter and
        spirit.

        Sincerely,
        ______________





        From Newsweek – Rethinking Gender: What Makes Us Male or Female?

        29 05 2007

        A growing number of Americans are taking their private struggles with their identities into the public realm. How those who believe they were born with the wrong bodies are forcing us to re-examine what it means to be male and female.

        By Debra Rosenberg

        Newsweek

        May 21, 2007 issue – Growing up in Corinth, Miss., J. T. Hayes had A legacy to attend to. His dad was a well-known race-car driver and Hayes spent much of his childhood tinkering in the family’s greasy garage, learning how to design and build cars. By the age of 10, he had started racing in his own right. Eventually Hayes won more than 500 regional and national championships in go-kart, midget and sprint racing, even making it to the NASCAR Winston Cup in the early ’90s. But behind the trophies and the swagger of the racing circuit, Hayes was harboring a painful secret: he had always believed he was a woman. He had feminine features and a slight frame—at 5 feet 6 and 118 pounds he was downright dainty—and had always felt, psychologically, like a girl. Only his anatomy got in the way. Since childhood he’d wrestled with what to do about it. He’d slip on “girl clothes” he hid under the mattress and try his hand with makeup. But he knew he’d find little support in his conservative hometown.

        In 1991, Hayes had a moment of truth. He was driving a sprint car on a dirt track in Little Rock when the car flipped end over end. “I was trapped upside down, engine throttle stuck, fuel running all over the racetrack and me,” Hayes recalls. “The accident didn’t scare me, but the thought that I hadn’t lived life to its full potential just ran chill bumps up and down my body.” That night he vowed to complete the transition to womanhood. Hayes kept racing while he sought therapy and started hormone treatments, hiding his growing breasts under an Ace bandage and baggy T shirts.

        Finally, in 1994, at 30, Hayes raced on a Saturday night in Memphis, then drove to Colorado the next day for sex-reassignment surgery, selling his prized race car to pay the tab. Hayes chose the name Terri O’Connell and began a new life as a woman who figured her racing days were over. But she had no idea what else to do. Eventually, O’Connell got a job at the mall selling women’s handbags for $8 an hour. O’Connell still hopes to race again, but she knows the odds are long: “Transgendered and professional motor sports just don’t go together.”

        To most of us, gender comes as naturally as breathing. We have no quarrel with the “M” or the “F” on our birth certificates. And, crash diets aside, we’ve made peace with how we want the world to see us—pants or skirt, boa or blazer, spiky heels or sneakers. But to those who consider themselves transgender, there’s a disconnect between the sex they were assigned at birth and the way they see or express themselves. Though their numbers are relatively few—the most generous estimate from the National Center for Transgender Equality is between 750,000 and 3 million Americans (fewer than 1 percent)—many of them are taking their intimate struggles public for the first time. In April, L.A. Times sportswriter Mike Penner announced in his column that when he returned from vacation, he would do so as a woman, Christine Daniels. Nine states plus Washington, D.C., have enacted antidiscrimination laws that protect transgender people—and an additional three states have legislation pending, according to the Human Rights Campaign. And this month the U.S. House of Representatives passed a hate-crimes prevention bill that included “gender identity.” Today’s transgender Americans go far beyond the old stereotypes (think “Rocky Horror Picture Show”). They are soccer moms, ministers, teachers, politicians, even young children. Their push for tolerance and acceptance is reshaping businesses, sports, schools and families. It’s also raising new questions about just what makes us male or female.

        What is gender anyway? It is certainly more than the physical details of what’s between our legs. History and science suggest that gender is more subtle and more complicated than anatomy. (It’s separate from sexual orientation, too, which determines which sex we’re attracted to.) Gender helps us organize the world into two boxes, his and hers, and gives us a way of quickly sizing up every person we see on the street. “Gender is a way of making the world secure,” says feminist scholar Judith Butler, a rhetoric professor at University of California, Berkeley. Though some scholars like Butler consider gender largely a social construct, others increasingly see it as a complex interplay of biology, genes, hormones and culture.

        Genesis set up the initial dichotomy: “Male and female he created them.” And historically, the differences between men and women in this country were thought to be distinct. Men, fueled by testosterone, were the providers, the fighters, the strong and silent types who brought home dinner. Women, hopped up on estrogen (not to mention the mothering hormone oxytocin), were the nurturers, the communicators, the soft, emotional ones who got that dinner on the table. But as society changed, the stereotypes faded. Now even discussing gender differences can be fraught. (Just ask former Harvard president Larry Summers, who unleashed a wave of criticism when he suggested, in 2005, that women might have less natural aptitude for math and science.) Still, even the most diehard feminist would likely agree that, even apart from genitalia, we are not exactly alike. In many cases, our habits, our posture, and even cultural identifiers like the way we dress set us apart.

        Now, as transgender people become more visible and challenge the old boundaries, they’ve given voice to another debate—whether gender comes in just two flavors. “The old categories that everybody’s either biologically male or female, that there are two distinct categories and there’s no overlap, that’s beginning to break down,” says Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at SUNY-Stony Brook. “All of those old categories seem to be more fluid.” Just the terminology can get confusing. “Transsexual” is an older term that usually refers to someone who wants to use hormones or surgery to change their sex. “Transvestites,” now more politely called “cross-dressers,” occasionally wear clothes of the opposite sex. “Transgender” is an umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex of their birth—whether they have surgery or not.

        Gender identity first becomes an issue in early childhood, as any parent who’s watched a toddler lunge for a truck or a doll can tell you. That’s also when some kids may become aware that their bodies and brains don’t quite match up. Jona Rose, a 6-year-old kindergartner in northern California, seems like a girl in nearly every way—she wears dresses, loves pink and purple, and bestowed female names on all her stuffed animals. But Jona, who was born Jonah, also has a penis. When she was 4, her mom, Pam, offered to buy Jona a dress, and she was so excited she nearly hyperventilated. She began wearing dresses every day to preschool and no one seemed to mind. It wasn’t easy at first. “We wrung our hands about this every night,” says her dad, Joel. But finally he and Pam decided to let their son live as a girl. They chose a private kindergarten where Jona wouldn’t have to hide the fact that he was born a boy, but could comfortably dress like a girl and even use the girls’ bathroom. “She has been pretty adamant from the get-go: ‘I am a girl’,” says Joel.

        Male or female, we all start life looking pretty much the same. Genes determine whether a particular human embryo will develop as male or female. But each individual embryo is equipped to be either one—each possesses the Mullerian ducts that become the female reproductive system as well as the Wolffian ducts that become the male one. Around eight weeks of development, through a complex genetic relay race, the X and the male’s Y chromosomes kick into gear, directing the structures to become testes or ovaries. (In most cases, the unneeded extra structures simply break down.) The ovaries and the testes are soon pumping out estrogen and testosterone, bathing the developing fetus in hormones. Meanwhile, the brain begins to form, complete with receptors—wired differently in men and women—that will later determine how both estrogen and testosterone are used in the body.

        After birth, the changes keep coming. In many species, male newborns experience a hormone surge that may “organize” sexual and behavioral traits, says Nirao Shah, a neuroscientist at UCSF. In rats, testosterone given in the first week of life can cause female babies to behave more like males once they reach adulthood. “These changes are thought to be irreversible,” says Shah. Between 1 and 5 months, male human babies also experience a hormone surge. It’s still unclear exactly what effect that surge has on the human brain, but it happens just when parents are oohing and aahing over their new arrivals.

        Here’s where culture comes in. Studies have shown that parents treat boys and girls very differently—breast-feeding boys longer but talking more to girls. That’s going on while the baby’s brain is engaged in a massive growth spurt. “The brain doubles in size in the first five years after birth, and the connectivity between the cells goes up hundreds of orders of magnitude,” says Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist and feminist at Brown University who is currently investigating whether subtle differences in parental behavior could influence gender identity in very young children. “The brain is interacting with culture from day one.”

        So what’s different in transgender people? Scientists don’t know for certain. Though their hormone levels seem to be the same as non-trans levels, some scientists speculate that their brains react differently to the hormones, just as men’s differ from women’s. But that could take decades of further research to prove. One 1997 study tantalizingly suggested structural differences between male, female and transsexual brains, but it has yet to be successfully replicated. Some transgender people blame the environment, citing studies that show pollutants have disrupted reproduction in frogs and other animals. But those links are so far not proved in humans. For now, transgender issues are classified as “Gender Identity Disorder” in the psychiatric manual DSM-IV. That’s controversial, too—gay-rights activists spent years campaigning to have homosexuality removed from the manual.
        Gender fluidity hasn’t always seemed shocking. Cross-dressing was common in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as among Native Americans and many other indigenous societies, according to Deborah Rudacille, author of “The Riddle of Gender.” Court records from the Jamestown settlement in 1629 describe the case of Thomas Hall, who claimed to be both a man and a woman. Of course, what’s considered masculine or feminine has long been a moving target. Our Founding Fathers wouldn’t be surprised to see men today with long hair or earrings, but they might be puzzled by women in pants.

        Transgender opponents have often turned to the Bible for support. Deut. 22:5 says: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” When word leaked in February that Steve Stanton, the Largo, Fla., city manager for 14 years, was planning to transition to life as a woman, the community erupted. At a public meeting over whether Stanton should be fired, one of many critics, Ron Sanders, pastor of the Lighthouse Baptist Church, insisted that Jesus would “want him terminated.” (Stanton did lose his job and this week will appear as Susan Stanton on Capitol Hill to lobby for antidiscrimination laws.) Equating gender change with homosexuality, Sanders says that “it’s an abomination, which means that it’s utterly disgusting.”

        Not all people of faith would agree. Baptist minister John Nemecek, 56, was surfing the Web one weekend in 2003, when his wife was at a baby shower. Desperate for clues to his long-suppressed feelings of femininity, he stumbled across an article about gender-identity disorder on WebMD. The suggested remedy was sex-reassignment surgery—something Nemecek soon thought he had to do. Many families can be ripped apart by such drastic changes, but Nemecek’s wife of 33 years stuck by him. His employer of 15 years, Spring Arbor University, a faith-based liberal-arts college in Michigan, did not. Nemecek says the school claimed that transgenderism violated its Christian principles, and when it renewed Nemecek’s contract—by then she was taking hormones and using the name Julie—it barred her from dressing as a woman on campus or even wearing earrings. Her workload and pay were cut, too, she says. She filed a discrimination claim, which was later settled through mediation. (The university declined to comment on the case.) Nemecek says she has no trouble squaring her gender change and her faith. “Actively expressing the feminine in me has helped me grow closer to God,” she says.

        Others have had better luck transitioning. Karen Kopriva, now 49, kept her job teaching high school in Lake Forest, Ill., when she shaved her beard and made the switch from Ken. When Mark Stumpp, a vice president at Prudential Financial, returned to work as Margaret in 2002, she sent a memo to her colleagues (subject: Me) explaining the change. “We all joked about wearing panty hose and whether ‘my condition’ was contagious,” she says. But “when the dust settled, everyone got back to work.” Companies like IBM and Kodak now cover trans-related medical care. And 125 Fortune 500 companies now protect transgender employees from job discrimination, up from three in 2000. Discrimination may not be the worst worry for transgender people: they are also at high risk of violence and hate crimes.
        Perhaps no field has wrestled more with the issue of gender than sports. There have long been accusations about male athletes’ trying to pass as women, or women’s taking testosterone to gain a competitive edge. In the 1960s, would-be female Olympians were required to undergo gender-screening tests. Essentially, that meant baring all before a panel of doctors who could verify that an athlete had girl parts. That method was soon scrapped in favor of a genetic test. But that quickly led to confusion over a handful of genetic disorders that give typical-looking women chromosomes other than the usual XX. Finally, the International Olympic Committee ditched mandatory lab-based screening, too. “We found there is no scientifically sound lab-based technique that can differentiate between man and woman,” says Arne Ljungqvist, chair of the IOC’s medical commission.

        The IOC recently waded into controversy again: in 2004 it issued regulations allowing transsexual athletes to compete in the Olympics if they’ve had sex-reassignment surgery and have taken hormones for two years. After convening a panel of experts, the IOC decided that the surgery and hormones would compensate for any hormonal or muscular advantage a male-to-female transsexual would have. (Female-to-male athletes would be allowed to take testosterone, but only at levels that wouldn’t give them a boost.) So far, Ljungqvist doesn’t know of any transsexual athletes who’ve competed. Ironically, Renee Richards, who won a lawsuit in 1977 for the right to play tennis as a woman after her own sex-reassignment surgery, questions the fairness of the IOC rule. She thinks decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

        Richards and other pioneers reflect the huge cultural shift over a generation of gender change. Now 70, Richards rejects the term transgender along with all the fluidity it conveys. “God didn’t put us on this earth to have gender diversity,” she says. “I don’t like the kids that are experimenting. I didn’t want to be something in between. I didn’t want to be trans anything. I wanted to be a man or a woman.”

        But more young people are embracing something we would traditionally consider in between. Because of the expense, invasiveness and mixed results (especially for women becoming men), only 1,000 to 2,000 Americans each year get sex-reassignment surgery—a number that’s on the rise, says Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Mykell Miller, a Northwestern University student born female who now considers himself male, hides his breasts under a special compression vest. Though he one day wants to take hormones and get a mastectomy, he can’t yet afford it. But that doesn’t affect his self-image. “I challenge the idea that all men were born with male bodies,” he says. “I don’t go out of my way to be the biggest, strongest guy.”

        Nowhere is the issue more pressing at the moment than a place that helped give rise to feminist movement a generation ago: Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Though Smith was one of the original Seven Sisters women’s colleges, its students have now taken to calling it a “mostly women’s college,” in part because of a growing number of “transmen” who decide to become male after they’ve enrolled. In 2004, students voted to remove pronouns from the student government constitution as a gesture to transgender students who no longer identified with “she” or “her.” (Smith is also one of 70 schools that have antidiscrimination policies protecting transgender students.) For now, anyone who is enrolled at Smith may graduate, but in order to be admitted in the first place, you must have been born a female. Tobias Davis, class of ’03, entered Smith as a woman, but graduated as a “transman.” When he first told friends over dinner, “I think I might be a boy,” they were instantly behind him, saying “Great! Have you picked a name yet?” Davis passed as male for his junior year abroad in Italy even without taking hormones; he had a mastectomy last fall. Now 25, Davis works at Smith and writes plays about the transgender experience. (His work “The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary” is a trans take on “The Vagina Monologues.”)

        As kids at ever-younger ages grapple with issues of gender variance, doctors, psychologists and parents are weighing how to balance immediate desires and long-term ones. Like Jona Rose, many kids begin questioning gender as toddlers, identifying with the other gender’s toys and clothes. Five times as many boys as girls say their gender doesn’t match their biological sex, says Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a psychiatrist who heads a gender-variance outreach program at Children’s National Medical Center. (Perhaps that’s because it’s easier for girls to blend in as tomboys.) Many of these children eventually move on and accept their biological sex, says Menvielle, often when they’re exposed to a disapproving larger world or when they’re influenced by the hormone surges of puberty. Only about 15 percent continue to show signs of gender-identity problems into adulthood, says Ken Zucker, who heads the Gender Identity Service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

        In the past, doctors often advised parents to direct their kids into more gender-appropriate clothing and behavior. Zucker still tells parents of unhappy boys to try more-neutral activities—say chess club instead of football. But now the thinking is that kids should lead the way. If a child persists in wanting to be the other gender, doctors may prescribe hormone “blockers” to keep puberty at bay. (Blockers have no permanent effects.) But they’re also increasingly willing to take more lasting steps: Isaak Brown (who started life as Liza) began taking male hormones at 16; at 17 he had a mastectomy.

        For parents like Colleen Vincente, 44, following a child’s lead seems only natural. Her second child, M. (Vincente asked to use an initial to protect the child’s privacy), was born female. But as soon as she could talk, she insisted on wearing boy’s clothes. Though M. had plenty of dolls, she gravitated toward “the boy things” and soon wanted to shave off all her hair. “We went along with that,” says Vincente. “We figured it was a phase.” One day, when she was 2½, M. overheard her parents talking about her using female pronouns. “He said, ‘No—I’m a him. You need to call me him’,” Vincente recalls. “We were shocked.” In his California preschool, M. continued to insist he was a boy and decided to change his name. Vincente and her husband, John, consulted a therapist, who confirmed their instincts to let M. guide them. Now 9, M. lives as a boy and most people have no idea he was born otherwise. “The most important thing is to realize this is who your child is,” Vincente says. That’s a big step for a family, but could be an even bigger one for the rest of the world.

        This story was written by Debra Rosenberg, with Reporting from Lorraine Ali, Mary Carmichael, Samantha Henig, Raina Kelley, Matthew Philips, Julie Scelfo, Kurt Soller, Karen Springen And Lynn Waddell.

        URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18618970/site/newsweek/?GT1=9951





        50 Under 30 Documents the “Gender War on America’s Youth”

        15 05 2007

        An overview of the report:

          50 Under 30: Masculinity and the War on America’s Youth documents a murderous tide of under-reported violence that is claiming the lives of gender non-conforming youth and young adults ages 30 and under, and the dangerous indifference of law enforcement authorities, policy-makers and mainstream media.Few of us realize just how many young people are dying violently each year simply because they don’t fit someone’s ideal for masculinity and femininity. Yet if federal law mandated the FBI to track gender-based hate crimes, they would outweigh every other category except race.These assaults are a violation of the most basic human rights: life, liberty, expression of self, and basic safety. 50 Under 30 aims to not only convey the tragic personal toll behind the data, but to spur decisive action by human rights and other advocacy organizations, educators, police, media, and youth themselves.For many, the term “gender-based violence” will be new, but the concept will not be. Anyone who has seen a “sissy boy” beaten or a “tomboy girl” ridiculed and tormented is already familiar with the hatred and violence towards those who are gender non-conforming.Research shows that hostility toward gender non-conformity starts early and is commonplace. In one recent study, 54% of youth reported that their school was unsafe for guys who aren’t as masculine as other guys, while one-quarter (27%) complained of being bullied themselves for not being “masculine or feminine enough.” In another, 61% of students reported seeing gender non-conforming classmates verbally attacked, and more than one-fifth (21%) reported seeing them physically assaulted. But this report is not about common harassment or bullying of youth that simply spun out of control. For if the animus towards gender non-conformity is widespread and indiscriminate, its fatalities certainly are not. Indeed, they are distinctly non-random and specific. They are precise in target, and consistent in method.Most of these young victims were biologically male; they were Black or Latina/o; and they were transgressing gender boundaries in some profound way. Almost all were killed by young males about their own age, who assaulted them in extraordinary attacks and often multiple acts of violence. These deaths are consistent with a pattern of young men using murderous aggression to enforce standards of masculinity and to assert their manhood.

          This is in the context of a wider “gender culture” that rewards hyper-masculinity, that loathes “sissies,” and that condones a “boy code” that uses male aggression to toughen up young boys (and sometimes enforce femininity in girls – while 8% of these victims were biologically female, their assailants were still males). In such a culture, being publicly labeled a “punk,” or “fag” can literally be a death sentence.

          This is, quite literally, a gender war on America’s youth.

          50 Under 30 is an examination of a little more than 10 years of the casualties in this war being waged on youth aged 13-to-30. We focused on youth, both because there has been such indifference to the epidemic of gender-based violence against them and because youth are particularly vulnerable to such violence, often lacking adult advocates or sufficient financial and social capital to ensure their own safety.

          The data in this report suggests the danger may be magnified among youth of color.

          These are deaths that go under-reported, under-publicized, and under-solved. Authorities often fail to categorize them as gender-based assaults, or even as hate crimes. If they are covered by media, it is singularly and always according to the identity of the victim. Since the epidemic is never seen as a whole, its root causes are never addressed or initiatives to address them developed. These young people have been dying violently, and alone, at the rate of about five per year for the last decade. 16 were teenagers; the youngest – Sakia Gunn – was only 15.

          Please speak out. Get involved. This epidemic must be stopped.

        ~~~

        Download the full report here: 50 Under 30

        More information is available at the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition website